Estate of Pennsylvania Man Who Died in Cruiser Sues

August 18, 2010

The estate of a man who died from a combination of drugs and alcohol in the back of a Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania police cruiser sued and alleged that a police officer, dispatcher and even the mayor knew the man was in the car for hours but did nothing to help.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, Pittsburgh, by lawyers for the estate of Stephen Obbish, 48, who died Aug. 15, 2009 in a car parked outside the station, about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Punxsutawney Detective Brian Andrekovich did little or nothing to check on Obbish’s condition after picking him up semiconscious at a Goodwill thrift store just before 10 a.m., the lawsuit said. Five hours later, Obbish was found dead, still in the back seat of Andrekovich’s squad car, parked in 80-degree temperatures.

Andrekovich was fired because of the incident, and for allegedly withholding information from investigators, though an arbitrator has since ruled he should be rehired. He remains off the force while borough council appeals that ruling.

Borough secretary Mary Neal declined comment Monday on the lawsuit, which also names Mayor James Wehrle and a police dispatcher _ both of whom also allegedly saw Obbish in the back of the car before he died. The Associated Press could not locate a listed phone number for Andrekovich.

The Jefferson County coroner said Obbish died from a combination of his own medications and a blood-alcohol content of 0.301 percent, nearly four times the legal limit for intoxication.

The attorney general investigated and, in March, said no charges would be filed against Andrekovich or anybody else in Obbish’s death. Andrekovich’s lawyer, Ralph Montana, didn’t answer calls to his office Monday, but previously said Andrekovich “did nothing wrong” and “went above and beyond to protect” Obbish.

That’s not the picture painted in the 32-page lawsuit filed by Obbish’s estate on Friday.

The lawsuit said Obbish told Andrekovich “that he had been drinking and was taking medications, specifically medication for a mental disability” identified elsewhere in the lawsuit as chronic paranoid schizophrenia.

But instead of taking that into account, Andrekovich allegedly dismissed that information “and proceeded to treat Mr. Obbish as an unruly drunk without considering the need for a medical evaluation and/or medical treatment.”

Obbish allegedly had a medical card in his wallet, detailing his condition, but Andrekovich and others at the police station never checked for it.

Instead, Andrekovich “dragged Mr. Obbish by his ankles through the store and out across the loading dock without calling for assistance from additional law enforcement officers or medical personnel” then shoved Obbish into the back of the cruiser.

Back at the station, Andrekovich “went about his normal duties” and asked the dispatcher to check on Obbish every half hour. According to the lawsuit, the dispatcher got close enough to the patrol car to hear Obbish snoring, but didn’t otherwise monitor his condition, nor did the mayor who allegedly saw Obbish in the back of the car in the police parking lot.

Obbish was found dead shortly before 3 p.m. when another officer checked on him, the lawsuit said.

Chad Wissinger, the attorney for Obbish’s estate, said the circumstances surrounding Obbish’s death were “extremely troubling” but declined to say, specifically, where he got the information about how Obbish was allegedly treated.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages to compensate the estate for Obbish’s loss of life, pain, suffering and his medical, funeral and burial costs.

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